Indian media representatives march holding a banner in Ahmedabad against attacks on journalists in 2008. Photo: AFP / Sam Panthaky
Indian media representatives march in Ahmedabad holding a banner against attacks on journalists in 2008. Photo: AFP / Sam Panthaky

The goings-on at a national news channel in India have raised fears of unofficial media censorship by the government after two of the channel’s senior journalists recently resigned and one other person went off-air.

ABP News’ 14-year managing editor, Milind Khandekar, and the anchor of a primetime show, Punya Prasun Bajpai, quit the organization one after the other, while senior news anchor Abhishar Sharma went on leave for 15 days.

Although the channel has treated the resignations as normal, the developments come after matters escalated last month during ABP News’ reportage debunking government claims about farmers’ incomes increasing. As for Sharma, he went off-air after he questioned instructions from the channel’s management on not criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his shows, The Wire reported.

Besides renowned journalists, prominent political leaders of opposition parties, from Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, have dubbed the developments the results of media censorship. While Surjewala said censorship was the “new normal” in Modi’s “New India,” Kejriwal accused the government of being “hell-bent to kill independent media.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has been under fire for allegedly curbing or allowing deterioration of press freedom in the country. Earlier this year, India slipped by 2 points in the World Press Freedom Index and ranked 138 among 180 countries, hanging right above Pakistan.

It is not clear whether the two senior journalists left the media organization on their own accord or were asked to leave. On the surface, Khandekar tweeted about him leaving the channel and thanked it for the decade-long journey, Bajpai has not stated anything so far. He even shared a clip of his primetime show Master Stroke on Thursday, the day he reportedly resigned.

Last month, ABP News tracked down a woman named Chandramani Kaushik hailing from a village in Chhattisgarh state and belonging to the farming community. The woman had become the poster girl of the  government’s claim of farmers’ income increasing after she on July 3 told Modi in a videoconference that her income had doubled with the help of government policy. When ABP interviewed the woman, she said her income had not increased from her paddy rice cultivation. The report also said she had been tutored to make those claims in front of the prime minister.

The report, aired on Bajpai’s show Master Stroke, received a lot of backlash from the Modi-led government, with high-profile ministers such as Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman criticizing it on social media. Cabinet ministers, BJP leaders, and cadres even trended #UnfortunateJournalism on Twitter in reaction to the news. The channel was accused of working with an anti-Modi agenda.

The channel readily defended itself by again sending a reporter to interview Kaushik and getting more details to debunk government claims. This time, Kaushik said her income had increased from 50-60 rupees (73-87 US cents) per day to 700 rupees ($10) through the business of pulp extraction from custard apples. However, the catch was that the 700-rupee income was not her own, but the collective income of a group of 12 women with whom she worked.

After this, there were reports of blackouts happening on cable and satellite TV only for ABP News at the very time Bajpai’s show came on air (9pm-10pm Indian Standard Time). Bajpai himself mentioned it in one of his tweets on July 23 where he said, “If you will block ‘Masterstroke’ on screen… we will treat it as a ‘blackboard’ and write the truth on it.” Moreover, BJP members and ministers also started to boycott the channel after the incident, according to media reports.

The Indian press has lately been facing a lot of repression, with rising allegations of media censorship and even murders of journalists.

Many prominent journalists have taken to social media to question the ABP’s silence on the resignations. The executive editor of another national news channel, NDTV, Nidhi Razdan, tweeted: “ABP news needs to speak up about what happened. These have been testing times for many of us. How does the channel explain itself? The press during the Emergency seemed to have had far more courage. And why is the govt so afraid of questions?”

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